Winning Our Children’s Hearts

Keeping our children’s affection requires patience and skill.

As parents, we play an important role in turning children’s hearts toward us. By closely examining our parental styles, we may find that we should be doing more to win our children’s hearts and to fulfill our responsibilities as parents. Such seemed to be the case with Frederick G. Williams when the Lord censured him:

“But verily I say unto you, my servant Frederick G. Williams, you have continued under this condemnation;

“You have not taught your children light and truth, according to the commandments; and that wicked one hath power, as yet, over you, and this is the cause of your affliction” (D&C 93:41–42).

Newel K. Whitney was similarly chastened: “My servant Newel K. Whitney also, a bishop of my church, hath need to be chastened, and set in order his family, and see that they are more diligent and concerned at home, and pray always, or they shall be removed out of their place” (D&C 93:50). Joseph Smith was also “rebuked” by the Lord concerning his family.

To raise children in righteousness, to help them become men and women of God, and to teach them love and respect for their parents is an enormous responsibility requiring faith, work, patience, example, skill, and love.

I have never seen more need for love than the time I sat in a counseling session with a fifteen-year-old boy and his parents. The boy appeared ashamed as his father critically exposed his problems: theft at age eight, trouble with teachers at age eleven, problems with police at age thirteen. Now he was failing in school, was in trouble again for stealing, and was having problems with alcohol.

The boy hung his head, tears flowing from his eyes. While his mother wept, torn by her loyalties for two people she loved, his father continued berating and belittling him. Emotional and annoyed, he asked his son, “What do you want? Why do you do these things?” This father, by not expressing any of the love he felt for his son, left his son feeling abandoned and alone.

Unfortunately, although most parents love their children very much, their love may not show in their parental skills. Caught up in the mechanics of daily living, parents sometimes fail to treat their children as unique human individuals.

Our approach to children should be tailored and constantly adapted to their changing personalities and circumstances. The process is like buying a coat for a child. Even if we find a perfect fit, eventually the child outgrows the coat. In rearing children, we do the best we can, aligning our approach with our highest ideals and standards. The following concepts, which have helped me professionally and personally, demonstrate how we might use love to soften and turn our children’s hearts toward us, their parents.

First, we should learn to listen to our children, to observe them, and to understand them. What do they say? What do they do? How do they see things? What is on their minds? How do they feel?

Listening to our children—and to the whisperings of the Spirit as we pray for their welfare—is vital.

I remember a young man who came to my office for counseling. One of his most vivid memories was of a father who listened. “I knew he cared, and so it was easy to reciprocate,” he said.

Second, we should not abuse, criticize, or put down our children. Positive words and encouragement are more effective than sarcasm, criticism, or abuse, which can have long-lasting impact on self-esteem.

I know a 38-year-old man who was considered a successful professional and prominent Church leader. However, he did not feel good about himself. In his mind he kept hearing the words of his parents, uttered twenty-five years earlier: “You’ll never amount to anything. You’re no good. You’ll never succeed.” This man still reacted to these words as though they had been spoken the day before. In the face of concrete evidence to the contrary, he denied his own self-worth.

Third, we should avoid taking away too many of our children’s privileges as punishment for their errors. A system of rewards and consequences is important, but an unconditional compliment or gift can be very effective in teaching and guiding. Approval of children should not depend entirely on behavior and performance. We all make mistakes.

In my family, we deal with the business and teaching aspects of our lives in a Sunday family council, which is different from family home evening on Monday. During family home evening, the children have fun, exciting, educational activities, and no one is ever excluded from the activities or treats—not even a child causing problems. We plan well in advance, and the children always look forward to home evening. No matter how tough the rest of the week might be, we all know that Monday night will be fun and meaningful.

Fourth, we need to make time for our children and spend that time wisely. Relationships should not be sacrificed for trivia like television. Time spent on trivia could be better spent participating in great family experiences as we work and worship together, study the scriptures, and serve others.

One mother of three children could not tolerate her young ones’ noise. Her escape was indulging in television six to eight hours a day. The more she ignored her children, the more they acted up to attract her attention. The more they acted up, the more glued she was to the television. She was challenged to spend one hour each day in meaningful, face-to-face conversation and activity with her children. With strong encouragement from her bishop, she reluctantly accepted the challenge. In two weeks, she noticed significant improvement in her attitude and in her children’s behavior. She admitted that previously she had been significantly more involved in the lives of television characters than in the lives of her children. She had traded trivia for meaningful relationships. But after her experiment, she was so pleased with her enriched family relationships that she became eager to increase her time with the children and decrease her time with the television.

Fifth, we should join our children in doing things they like to do. Too often we force our interests upon our children, ignoring their desires and capabilities. I recall one mother’s opposition to her eighteen-year-old son’s desire for a motorcycle. She worried about his safety, and she was concerned he would postpone a mission. The boy had sufficient money, so he ignored his mother’s wishes and bought a motorcycle. As a result, communication between the mother and son deteriorated. The son felt he was an adult being treated like a child, while his mother felt she was not being honored and respected.

The mother told me she had done everything to make peace. “One thing you have not done is go for a ride on your son’s motorcycle,” I said. Her jaw dropped. Though somewhat bewildered, she promised to try.

Two weeks later she returned with her son. Grinning, he said, “You should have seen her—this elegant, graceful mother of mine—trying to balance my motorcycle!”

His mother had gone out of her way to show an interest in something her son valued. A major step had been taken. The mother had learned the importance of spending constructive time with her children, doing things that interest them.

Sixth, we need to nurture our self-image. One of the greatest ways to enhance our ability to love is to increase our self-esteem and self-worth. And one of the greatest ways to increase our self-esteem and to comprehend our self-worth as children of God is by communing with God.

Treating our children positively is difficult if we are down on ourselves. Such was the case with one woman who had physically abused her children. When faced with the prospect of losing them to a government child-protection agency, she became a willing and impressionable client. She had made some serious mistakes and had, as a result, allowed self-hatred to permeate her mind. By viewing her life through the perspective of self-hatred, she had created a desire to hurt herself and her family. Once she saw her mistakes from a new perspective, she was able to understand and tolerate her past errors. This freed her, enabling her to think positive thoughts about herself and to learn new behavior. Once her self-esteem began to improve, her self-hatred and hurtful conduct began to diminish. The better she treated her children, the more they liked her. If we like ourselves, it is much easier to like others and to show them love, concern, and support. It is also easier for others, including our children, to like us.

Seventh, we should realize that many problems can be prevented. Understanding some aspects of our behavior and our children’s behavior will help us predict the interaction of family relationships. If we can predict problem situations, we can more easily prevent trouble.

I know a couple who had an overly rigid parental style that included unrealistic expectations, harsh punishment, and little or no encouragement. That approach helped push their eldest teenage daughter into an undesirable lifestyle.

Once the parents made major changes by listening, sharing feelings, encouraging, and creating positive family activities, they reclaimed their daughter’s heart. In addition, they gained confidence in their ability to prevent similar problems from occurring with their other children. They learned that preventing problems is easier than solving them.

Finally, because all problems cannot be prevented, we must develop the ability to learn from the challenges, trials, and crises we face. Some children, like Laman and Lemuel, withhold their hearts regardless of their parents’ efforts. We should learn to use child-rearing challenges to improve our perspective, review family priorities, and fulfill commitments to our children. We don’t need to wait for a crisis before we start developing a learning attitude.

A few years ago, my wife and I faced a trial with our five-year-old son. He was rambunctious, aggressive, insistent, and outgoing. His mannerisms had embarrassed us, and neighborhood parents had complained about his behavior. One day my wife looked out the window to see him dragging an eight-foot-long board along the sidewalk. She ran down the street just in time to see him threatening the block bully, three years his senior, with the board. The day before this incident, he had squirted a little girl in the face with water.

He treated furniture like gymnastic equipment. He treated the bathtub like a swimming pool. He treated his brothers and sisters like an opposing rugby team. I was getting rather annoyed with his behavior, and I let him know.

A series of logical consequences and withholding of rewards failed to channel his boundless energy. One day when I was at the height of my frustration, I received an urgent message from my wife. Our son had become feverish and was almost delirious. I immediately rushed home to administer to him. After we took him to the hospital, his temperature rose to 105 degrees. For several days, his almost lifeless body lay in a hospital bed—quivering and burning up with fever. As I stood by his bedside, I longed to see him well again. I wished I could see his energetic mannerisms. I wanted his fighting, outgoing spirit back in my life. Over his bedside, I made a commitment that I would learn to demonstrate my love for him, that I would treat him with all the warmth and acceptance a child of God deserves—regardless of his behavior.

After a few days of hospitalization, our son’s health improved and our crisis ended. Although his health was better, his behavior was not. He was still energetic, still often in trouble, still rambunctious. The only thing that had changed in his life was his father’s attitude toward him. I’m grateful for what that minor crisis taught me.

During a subsequent father-son interview, I asked him the standard questions I ask of all my children: “What do you think of me as a father?”

“You’re all right, I guess,” he answered as he tipped over in the rocking chair.

I helped him pick up the chair and asked, “Well, what can I do for you?”

“Ah, Dad,” he exclaimed, looking up with a sparkle in his eyes and a grin on his face. “All you gotta do is just love me.” He then ran out the door before we could close with prayer.

Rearing children is a challenge. Winning the hearts of our children is an even bigger challenge. To succeed, we must make a genuine effort to develop the love and skills necessary to ensure that the hearts of our children turn to us, their mothers and fathers.

[photos] Photography by Welden Andersen

Stephen D. ZoBell, a family counselor and a member of the Willow Park Ward, serves as a high councilor in the Calgary Alberta South Stake.